on the path to rigor: demystifying differentiation

I have spent the majority of my career teaching advanced courses such as International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement to upperclassman. So after it had been decided that I was going to teach 9th grade in the 2015-2016 school year, my standard response and running joke was:

Pray for my soul.

It is now May, and I can honestly say not only has my soul survived teaching 9th grade this year…it has even thrived. This of course was not without struggle: I had to tighten my behavior management approaches and often went home discouraged. However, now that I have taught a class of 25 freshman (comprised of 16 students who are emerging bilinguals, 7 students who have IEP’s, and a range of baseline Lexile scores from 65-1121), I can honestly say, with confidence rather than just educational jargon, that I know how to differentiate. With this in mind, I feel both growth and fulfillment in my professional growth plan areas for the 2015-2016 school year:

I6: Provides differentiation that addresses students’ instructional needs and supports mastery of content-language objective(s)

I2: Provides rigorous tasks that require critical thinking with appropriate digital and other supports to ensure students’ success

As I reflect now, I recognize more than ever that differentiation and rigor go hand in hand. Since rigor is about appropriate level of challenge for all students, each student needs to be challenged at a different level through individualized resources.

This year would not have proved as fruitful in my professional growth without the presence of so many quality people around me. I could not have grown in differentiation this year without the collaboration of my colleagues, especially Johanna and Julia. Johanna daily provided another set of eyes, and often she pushed me to challenge our students beyond what I thought was possible. She also encouraged me when I felt defeated about our 9th graders’ progress or behavior (or lack thereof), ensuring that I persevere in a way that would honor the rigor she knew I sought on behalf of our students. Julia’s regular input of SPEDucator expertise regarding ways to modify and strategies for support in and out of the classroom for students with IEP’s was invaluable. Through Julia, I learned that students can demonstrate a tremendous amount of intelligence if they are given the scaffolding to do so. Other conversations that benefited me were based in our school’s instructional team. Lastly, I relied heavily on the LEAP framework and its supplements for differentiation strategies.

In light of my focus on differentiating to attain rigor, I targeted two of the three genres that I remember learning from our work with University of Colorado Denver Professional Development: differentiation in process and product.

The primary way I differentiated in process was to create scaffolds for students. For all students, I frequently created graphic organizers to support learning. However, for students who needed more structure with writing, I created a paragraph frame. The graphic organizers looked the same from afar, so to students the process seemed singular, but for the students who needed more, the process was individualized for their needs:

I did a similar approach for students who needed intervention with reading. Their graphic organizers included a paraphrase of Shakespeare, whereas the other students did not have this support and had to complete this task collaboratively. Not only did this tactic allow for students to access the text, it also reduced steps in the process—another differentiation strategy for process:

In addition to scaffolds, I changed the way I planned to differentiate the process for students. For example, I would have multiple levels of texts about the same content. In a jigsaw strategy, students who had a lower Lexile would have texts at their level, but then would talk with other people at different levels about the same content. This ensured every student felt a sense of responsibility to the group and the content while also allowing each person to be appropriately challenged. Beyond jigsaw strategy, I often used groupings to differentiate process as well—either through homogeneous or heterogeneous mixings.

I offered differentiation along the way, but I also ensured that products were tailored to the abilities of students, intentionally providing each student the appropriate level of rigor. For example, students had to write a style analysis paper per the district curriculum. For the general student population, their prompt was a multi-paragraph essay analyzing one author:


For students who needed more challenge, their prompt was a multi-paragraph essay that compared and contrasted two authors:


For students who needed additional support, I created a prompt to analyze one author, but in a shorter multi-paragraph essay:


As I sit with incoming data from the end of the year, the numerical impact of differentiation on my students has been profound. From the first to the most recent argumentative essay, students grew their class average from 10.2 to a class average of 15.3—a proficient score! Of even greater pride and joy to me is the growth of those students who have IEP’s…many of them increased their score by almost 10 points! In terms of reading, this section of 9th graders began the year with an average SRI of 788 and finished the year with an average SRI of 932–an average growth of 144 points.


However, more important to me than numbers are stories. One of my students who began the year at a 3rd grade reading level said this of the characters from To Kill A Mockingbird:

image1 (2)

Nothing brings me greater joy than a student who sees herself in the characters of a canonical text!

Feedback from students also shows they feel challenged at the appropriate level. The majority of students–both those who have IEP’s and those who do not–feel that the class “is hard, but it helps them grow”:

I am most proud of this feedback from students though:


This is feedback from students with IEP’s who feel that I take into consideration their accommodations the majority of the time. I know for a fact this would NOT have been reflected in surveys from past years as a teacher, so I feel proud of how I have grown in differentiation.

As I look ahead at next year, I am drawn to two next steps. First and foremost, the key to differentiation is practice, practice, practice. The more I apply strategies to differentiate process and product, the less time-consuming it will become (a frequent and valid complaint about differentiation). I especially see this as important as I will double my student load next year! I also want to grow in my ability to offer students independence in and ownership over what scaffolds they use; often the challenge lies in how I offer scaffolds but then also empower students to wean off of them or only use them when necessary and to the extent that they need. Or better yet, how do I help students find and/or create their own scaffolds…which is how it will be in college and the real world.

On a deeper level, my next step is to embrace the fear that comes with the unknown. I started the year worried about what kind of teacher I would be in such a challenging class with new content. And, now, I finish the year with an answer to that. Without the risk of trying something new, something scary, I would not have grown in the way I have…and for that I am just as grateful for my freshman as I hope they are for me.